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Jan 3, 2014 12:08 PM

Are any NJ Japanese restaurants actually run by Japanese?

I love Japanese food. I've been lucky enough to visit the beautiful country four times and am planning another trip this year. I've been on a search for a few good Japanese places since moving to NJ, but most of the time run into a strange NJ phenomenon. Why are most Japanese places here not run by Japanese. Japanese sushi chefs and cooks go through very extensive training and their cuisine is more complex and varied than silly jersey shore rolls and flaming hibachi tables. I never once saw anything close to resembling either of these absurd American inventions while visiting Japan. The other thing that infuriates me is the all Asian food under one roof trend. How can you have a Japanese Thai Chinese joint and expect much of anything to taste "Authentic"? Has anyone come up with a concept serving French German and Irish food under one roof? It is just too damn strange.

And don't even get me started on sushi. I'm surprised we don't lead the states in cases of food poisoning or, hell, maybe we do?

I have found a few places that seem ok and are run by Japanese, but they seem to cater to those that don't really eat sushi/sashimi. Sorry guys, eating a roll, although good at times, is not eating sushi.

Plus we have no noodle shops, izakayas, yakitori, tonkatsu, or any of the other types of Japanese restaurants outside of mistuwa around or am I missing some hidden places?

There is no question that the demand is there so why aren't there better options that are truer versions of the cuisine?

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  1. It is not just japanese food. Lots of "ethnic" food places are americanized (is that a word?) lol

    And yes, japanese food is a lot different in japan. Their hibachi places are not about the "show" at all.

    Taka and Kazu are both japanese I think.

    5 Replies
    1. re: corvette johnny

      Thanks corvette johnny. I'll add them to the list. You bring up a good point regarding ethnic food. I call it the mall food court effect.

      How is it that Chinese can cook Cajun, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, and anything else that is battered, fried, and sugar coated? Heck, even the Chinese are serving us non-Chinese food. You have to practically beg some places to get the Chinese menu instead of them dumping chicken with American broccoli or General Toe's on your table.

      I remember the first time I had really good Sichuan food. I felt cheated for years that I was given some of the crap that is served at "Chinese" joints.

      It is good to see that this is starting to change a bit with some amazing places popping up in and around the city.

      1. re: LifeGeek

        its funny....this brings up a time I was in okinawa. I went to an Italian place and was thinking "why the hell are we eating italian in japan" (I was with a group.) It turned out to be one of the best italian dishes I have tried...go figure.

        1. re: LifeGeek

          This is not limited to Asian eateries. A large number of the kitchens serving western cuisine in this area (Italian, French, Cajun, Portuguese, Steakhouses, whatever are helmed by Mexicans...

          1. re: LifeGeek

            First of all, Sichuan food is one kind of many types of Chinese food. However, i agree with that a lot of so-called Chinese food are not what people eat in China. But if chinese restaurants only serve authentic chinese food, not many of them would survive. I experienced many of these restaurants closed due to lack of open-to-different food customers on daily basis.
            Glad to hear that you are so open to various food and cultures.

            1. re: LifeGeek

              >You have to practically beg some places to get the Chinese menu

              Sensationalize much? I've only ever had to ask.

          2. Tomo in East Hanover is owned by a Japanese chef and is not Americanized.

            1. Try Tatsumi in edgewater.

              1. There just aren't significant Japanese populations in the US, outside of California and Hawaii. Even NYC really doesn't have a large number of Japanese residents, considering its total population size. Mathematically only 1 out of every 450 people in NJ is Japanese.

                Outside of the larger chains, many izakaya and yakitori places in Japan serve a quality and style of food in a tapas-like form that is not the same as what many Americans want, they have a-la-carte menus of small portions, they frequently emphazise the uniqueness and source of the ingredients, menus change routinely, and you are paying a extra for quality and atmosphere over quantity. Also while I know next to nothing about sake, I do know that sake is frequently a big part of the izakaya experience in Japan. Each one of those factors certainly has analogues in American cuisine and other cuisines served in the US, and I don't mean to imply that izakaya are necessarily "superior" to other types of restaurants, but I think when you add them all together it's a tougher sell over here to the average American. No question on the quality point you made but I can't say that I see the demand part, at least not regular or big enough to support a non-trivial number of places.

                Are there crappy izakaya in Japan? Yes, but not a lot of them.

                Are there sushiya in NJ that are run by non-Japanese that are decent-to-good? Yes of course.

                Outside of sushi you really have to go into NYC to get what you are looking for at a selection and frequency that comes even close to what you want (ramen, izakaya, teppanyaki (what the US calls "hibachi"), yakiniku), and some of them will still be run by non-Japanese.

                Some people have made some suggestions already but you didn't say what area of NJ you live in?

                P.S. On your Sichuan comment, I was born and raised in Union County but until I returned to the US and ended up in Mercer County 2 years ago I never had decent Chinese in NJ either, other than perhaps Cathay 22 and Sichuan Village, both in Springfield. Now I have a few good places in the immediate area and going up Rt 1 N into Edison etc. a few to choose from.

                1 Reply
                1. re: kamiosaki

                  I was hoping to start an interesting thread and you guys aren't disappointing me. Kamiosaki is really breaking things down.

                  I happen to live in monmouth county after leaving the city. I have to say that even the city can be frustrating. You have several issues going on in general in the city. One, you have the insanely priced mediocre places that cater toward the expense account whitey crowd (btw, I could be considered one of these douchebags). Then you have the places catering to the least common denominator hipster crowd (eff it, I guess this is where I started out). Then you have the real deal places that can be off putting to those outside of the cultural cliques (guilty, whitey snobs sometimes break into the "it" crowd).

                  I have somehow convinced those around me maybe due to my crazy enthusiasm that good things come to those that are curious. Isn't that exactly what chowhound is all about.

                  I love taking someone that actually eats crappy sushi to a reasonable priced, simple place and see their face light up with delight.

                  The demand is absolutely there in my opinion. People want more than ever to eat quality local food. It can be found in every place in America. I guess I crave the day that America starts to appreciate how many special things we have available. For example, when I lived in Seattle I fell in love with geoduck sashimi among a million other things. Here in NJ, we are blessed with so many local products. The last time I went for sushi in the city, I almost got into a fist fight with some jerk regarding the quality of NJ scallops.

                  I'm getting way off topic, but back to my original point. Nothing annoys me more than being tricked or scammed under the guise of "authenticity."

                  Sorry to preach to the choir, but it is up to us chowhounders who pride ourselves on being curious to educate those around us to what is good and what is fake.

                2. I have to say, most of the Japanese places I go to (in Northern NJ) are in fact run (and owned) by Japanese. That said, most of them have the nouveau, modern, flair type rolls. That to me is more of a byproduct of "American" tastes, and sushi becoming "Amercanized" so to speak. The "authentic" discussion has been going on forever, LOL.

                  While these rolls are not authentic, it doesn't mean that I or others can't enjoy what I like and it certainly doesn't mean that there aren't numerous other authentic dishes being offered. I've always said if a person is looking strictly for true blue 100% authentic -- then go find it. If a place isn't for you, that's fine, but it doesn't mean it doesn't fill a need/want, or that it can't be enjoyed by others.

                  Now, it's another issue if the place portrays itself as being authentic...all? Some? A few? Get my point? Is someone going to rant and rave about "false advertising" or something. I feel this is being very overdramatic. To what end? Because the "food police" serves such an important role in our society, LOL.

                  As corvette johnny said -- most places have become "Americanized" so to speak. But there is still very authentic places. Perhaps they are few and far between and designed to serve the respective population. In Northern NJ, there are enclaves of Asian populations, so it's very different. One of my favorite Japanese places (it was in Fort Lee) -- was owned, operated, and run by Japanese people; and the overwhelming majority of people who attended were Japanese. But the place offered some "Americanized" fare and very authentic fare (a lot) as well.

                  There's a geographic element here without question, but also it's "what are you looking for" so to speak. Thanks.

                  27 Replies
                  1. re: ELA

                    @ELA - but "Northern New Jersey" in your 1st paragraph really only means Bergen County correct? There really are no other enclaves of Japanese people, or Japanese-run Japanese restaurants, anywhere else in the state.

                    1. re: kamiosaki

                      I can't speak directly to the enclaves and population -- but, as far as Japanese owned/run, I am sure there are places that are Japanese owned/run outside Bergen County. Maybe they don't serve a concentrated Japanese population.

                      As mentioned above, Tomo is one. What about Midori? What about Sushi Lounge? Fuji (Haddonfield) -- which I think made it onto one of the top 25 NJ restaurants for 2013? The authentic aspect is different in my mind.

                      1. re: ELA

                        Japanese don't tend to live in concentrated areas here like say Koreans or Chinese.

                        1. re: ELA

                          Understood - I phrased the "Japanese restaurants" part of the sentence a bit sloppily, I meant that there are no significant concentrations of them anywhere else. FWIW the only Japanese-run Japanese restaurants in Mercer County that I am aware of are Ajihei in Princeton and Tsukasa (technically at the very top of Burlington County but I list it here so that I can say there are two). We go to Tsukasa every so often.

                      2. re: ELA

                        What is the name of the place in Fort Lee or is it closed now?

                        1. re: LifeGeek

                          Yamaguchi...went through a few phases, but always many Japanese people there. At one time, they had "two" menus -- one being completely authentic. As a matter of fact, I used to see many Japanese people ordering items "off the menu" as well. They had certain fish/sushi that was only on the authentic menu and occasionally certain special items that weren't on either.

                          There was another, small place in Fort Lee, on Main Street -- and while many people ate there, it was Japanese owned and operated, and they too had a very high % of Japanese people who ate there. It was very much under the radar, and they closed several years ago -- but I knew Japanese people who drove from well outside of town to go there. They too offered both Americanized offerings and more authentic dishes.

                          Many years ago, before Fort Lee became a melting pot of Asians, it was started out with many Japanese. In my building, some of the condo's were owned by Japanese corporations and had an employee/family live and work here for X years and then another would come. I know the same was true with a few other condo buildings.

                          There was an influx of Chinese and then even more with Koreans, which I think ended up being a more long term pattern. Some nearby areas (Palisades Park) experienced this as well.

                          1. re: ELA

                            Chinese populated Bergen County first...When the Japanese Economy took off and the Japanese corporations prospered, they sent their top people here for (4?) year stints, as they could earn their income tax free under Japanese law. When that changed and the Japanese economy took a nose was no longer attractive for the Japanese to leave Japan from a financial
                            standpoint. That's when the Korean community began to prosper....but we all really know the Koreans came to Bergen County to play golf....especially at Overpeck...which is revered and promoted in Korean Golf publications back in South Korea.

                            Yamaguchi was owned by the same guy who used to own my Golf Club.....he was the Marriott of food for the airline industry in Japan....I think he went to jail for a corruption sweep. I believe there were 3-4 locations in NY/NJ

                            Is Shumi in Somerset still open....they used to get a lot of positive reviews.

                            1. re: fourunder

                              "Yamaguchi was owned by the same guy who used to own my Golf Club.....he was the Marriott of food for the airline industry in Japan....I think he went to jail for a corruption sweep. I believe there were 3-4 locations in NY/NJ"

                              I wasn't aware of that...any links on that? Who was the owner and what gold club did he own? One time I was there, I was introduced to a guy who the manager called "the owner" but he also said there was a group of some sort. He always was a bit vague, LOL, but I didn't care.

                              They used to have mahjong games in the back -- serious ones from what I gather, LOL. I used to joke with the manager that I wanted to play, and he joked right back that all of them would love for me to play! LOL.

                              Regardless, some people didn't like it or give it a chance because of where it was located, but that didn't matter to me. I liked the place and enjoyed going there. I lived nearby and was there a lot so they treated me well.

                              1. re: ELA

                                How can you not like the Courtesy Motel....

                                We used to go regularly until the last couple of years it was open and I had a house bottle of Chivas and Stoli on the wall. When they tried to do the *all you can drink* beer or wine option, you were lucky if you could get one refill...let alone bottomless. When it first opened it was great.

                                The owner's name was Namaguchi...the club was Haworth....and he had a very young Caucasian Girlfriend who used to be one of his waitresses...and flew her back and forth from NJ to Japan and back. She was definitely worth it.

                                1. re: fourunder

                                  This place is starting to sound like it was run by the yakuza! It would be great to read an article on his demise. Sounds like his life would be a good mini-series.

                                  1. re: LifeGeek

                                    It wasn't that way. I don't know any of the other story -- corruption, jail, etc.

                                    I was told there was a guy there named "Yamaguchi" and he was part of a group that owned the place, along with another location (in NYC, I think, and another location somewhere on Long Island). I really don't remember.

                                    Listen, I just went there for sushi, LOL. It was always very good -- fresh, high quality, prepared very well, good taste/flavor, and they always steered me in the right direction. I enjoyed a lot of times there -- friends, family, etc.

                                    1. re: ELA

                                      Haworth was a close knit club. My father was part of the Men's Club and as part of the *gang*, he was invited with his cronies to Japan, to visit the other club Namaguchi owned.

                                  2. re: fourunder

                                    What was the name of the small place on Main Street in Fort Lee? Probably about 15 years ago. Maybe it closed 7 years ago? It was a few doors down from the Cigar Room (same side of the street). I think after it closed it became Vietnamese?

                                    Anyone remember?

                                    1. re: ELA

                                      I seem to recall Niko(?)...or Ashai(?)...possibly with some affiliation to Rocky Aoki.

                                      1. re: fourunder

                              , it wasn't either of them. I am trying to figure it out. Give me a some time, LOL.

                                        Anyway, I remember the place and used to go there often when I lived in Fort Lee/Cliffside -- and the one sushi chef used to buy his fish daily, get really high quality, good stuff and sometimes something special, hard to find, etc. He was "fundamental" and did sushi for his Japanese customers who would dine there regularly, and he'd create a few specials with more of a modern flair -- but nothing with 7 ingredients, toppings, tempura, massago/fish egg, spicy this, mango that, and so on.

                                        I'll figure it out. LOL.

                                2. re: fourunder

                                  Wow, you are a living history. you know so much about Bergen County. May I ask how long you have been living in Bergen county and where you live?

                                  1. re: Monica

                                    Moved into Bergenfield in 61....lived in Hackensack, Oakland, Morris Plains...and back to Bergenfield.

                                    The spot in question may even have been the original Kiku location....before they moved over to Palisades/Lemoine.....then to Paramus and Alpine.

                                    1. re: fourunder

                                      haha, I live in Tenafly so you are literally one town over.
                                      I have never been to Kiku. Is it any good?

                                      1. re: Monica

                                        Kiku has always been the most expensive Japanese restaurant... regardless of where it's location was, or is. I have not been to the location on Route 17....the last time was at the Route 4 location before they moved....which I used to take my son and his friends to when he was still in High School almost 2 decades ago. The Sushi Bar was very good then, and the steak for the Hibachi/Teppanyaki was tops.

                                        There is nothing exceptional about the place.

                                        I used to go to Kaname in Cliffside Park, back in those silly days of Karaoke...the owner, George was friends with my associates from the Country Club, so we got treated well....but whether we had one drink or 10, it was a C-Note back in the 80's.....I had to keep a bottle on the wall there too, so I afford to drink there....

                                        1. re: fourunder

                                          Karaoke is never silly! especially if you are drunk!
                                          I have never been to Kiku...maybe I will take them for their birthdays if they have teppanyaki tables.

                                          1. re: fourunder

                                            I was never a huge fan of Kiku, but the one on 17S/Paramus, now gets very good reviews from people I know, trust, etc. -- including people in the business. I went once and liked it. Can't speak to it being expensive but it wouldn't surprise me. I believe they are Korean-owned.

                                            The one in Alpine, many years ago, IMO, was much better -- before it became about the show so to speak. I haven't been back there in years -- but one other thing I distinctly give it a thumbs up on is the fact that we could get a drink there at 17, when the drinking age was 18. LOL. Heard the same thing from others when the drinking age was 21 (and the under 21 crowd could get served there). LOL.

                                            I was never a big fan of the hibachi show -- just seemed like run of the mill, everyday chicken, beef, and so on, with a nice show, a lot of salt, teriyaki, soy, etc. It's edible and can be fun, entertaining, and if you think the food is good -- you can get value for your money. But if you found a good one -- yes, IMO, you could enjoy it, get value, etc.

                                            1. re: ELA

                                              The place in Alpine...did you ever go when it was Shinwa?

                                              Now that was crazy expensive. Back in the late 80s, we used to go for lunch and sit at the counter/bar...We used to get live lobster, shrimp, uni and abalone right from the aquarium...

                                              1. re: fourunder

                                                Yes, absolutely. When I went to Shinwa it didn't have hibachi style. I remember the sushi being very fresh -- tasty. I didn't know that some of it came right out of the tank! LOL.

                                            2. re: fourunder

                                              Kaname has been around for many many years -- which in some respect speaks to the restaurant itself. Longevity tends not to be a byproduct of a bad place, bad food, etc. More the exception not the norm.

                                              That said -- I think Kaname also was better early on, but George is a mainstay and a bit of a local celebrity (and he is a big karaoke fan himself, LOL). George always treated people well, especially his regulars. Stop in there regularly and you'd get to sit at the sushi bar with Sen. Frank Lautenberg. LOL.

                                              1. re: ELA

                                                and see the Sake cup in his right pocket....

                                  2. re: LifeGeek

                                    If you want to go back many years, the best sushi restaurant in that area was Ushiwakamaru, which moved to Houston Street in NYC after the chef/owner won a competition for sushi chefs if my memory is correct. I believe that Ushiwakamaru was in Palisades Park.